Showing posts from 2008

20th Anniversary!

Today is Susan's and my 20th wedding anniversary! That's exactly 7,300 days. Seven thousand, three hundred days... and not one argument. Ha!

After 7,300 days, you think you would know all there is to know about each other. Not hardly! We are still discovering how to love and serve one another. Love is never static.

And after 7300 days, I am aware that I have not figured out all things marital. Like the vast majority of other men, I am slow on the uptake. (Hint to guys -- understanding that you are dimwitted breeds humility. Remember this: Humility good. Arrogance bad.)

The other day I was telling a couple of women friends at church about Susan's and my anniversary. Feigning great wisdom, I boldly stated, "The next 20 years will be really good, because I won't be nearly as stupid as I was in the first 20 years." Both of them burst out laughing. One replied dryly, "Yeah, right." The other chimed in, "Of course not." The joke was on me, and I go…

The importance of friends

Friend and co-laborer Bryan Johnson and I were talking yesterday about friends. He made note of something I have not thought about before. Our friends are extremely important to us, but we spend most of our time away from our friends. In actuality, we are with our friends only a small sliver of any given week. For that matter, I often go for more than a week without seeing many of my friends. I might not even communicate with them for many days at a time. Yet I can pick up a conversation with a good friend as if it has been a half hour since we last talked. This is because we carry our friends with us in our interior worlds. Our friends are in our thoughts. In this way, as long as we have friends, we are never alone.

This being the case, it is all the more important that we speak words of encouragement to our friends. That is what they will carry into their mental and emotional worlds. It is the tone our friendship will take in those spans of time between seeing each other or communica…

Line of the day

Here is today's "line of the day" so far...

A friend described himself in an e-mail as "never in doubt, just not often right." I had to lean back from my computer and laugh out loud at that one.

"Will I regret this at the end of my life?"

I talked with my good friend, Loren Johnson, this week. Loren is the former worship pastor at King's Harbor Church and is currently on sabbatical in Nashville. His is not an ordinary sabbatical. He sold his house in SoCal, banked the equity, and is living for a while in Tennessee without a job. He and Christine, his wife, felt the strong leading of God to do this. Still, it is uncoventional to willingly go without work for six months to a year.

There are times when Loren and Christine consider the cost of taking this kind of sabbatical. They are spending some of their life savings. But here is how Loren weighs the decision -- and this is the thought-provoking question for us: "Will I regret this at the end of my life?" Besides the fact that he considers the sabbatical to be an act of obedience, he believes the investment he is making in his family and his musical creativity during this season will produce fruit, so that at the end of his days when he reflects back on thin…

Psalm 48

This morning in my devotions I read Ps 48, in which I noticed a couple of interesting things. First, the Psalm focuses on Mount Zion and the city of Jerusalem. When we read this Psalm, we get a window into the reverence and affection ancient Jews had for the holy city. Especially at the end of Ps 48, there is a very close connection between the beauty and majesty of the city and the character of God. Imagine, then, the stir it would cause when Jesus (or any other prophet) would proclaim doom for the city or its temple.

Second, I discovered a way we 21st-century Western Christians can latch onto this Psalm -- which otherwise might seem strange and distant. For the psalmist and his readers, the city inspired him to think glorious thoughts of God. As Christians, we do not have a particular city -- not even Jerusalem. Should we look to our church buildings? It's possible to do that. Centuries ago, European Christians built the cathedrals for that reason. But I have never been that enam…

Mother Teresa's personal vow

Back to Mother Teresa... One of her great secrets, which has now been revealed through the publication of her private correspondence, is that Mother Teresa took a personal vow that would forever shape her spiritual life. It was: "not to refuse Him anything."

Her love for Jesus was expressed in this vow. How can one refuse one's Beloved? And, in the case of Jesus, he gave all of himself for us, so how can we not give all of ourselves back to him?

She strove to keep this vow down to the most minute detail of life. What this requires is habitual and loving attentiveness to God in prayer. It is being mindful of what God might require in each present moment.

Thus, although Mother Teresa is a Catholic saint and therefore somewhat distant from the world of many evangelicals, all Christians are familiar with what is at the core of her relationship with God: loving obedience.

Christians with low expectations

I am doing some research on St. John of the Cross, author of Dark Night of the Soul and other spiritual classics. Along the way I came across this quote by Bede Frost, who wrote a book about John in 1937. Frost observes that in the New Testament, language was routinely used that spoke of us being "in Christ", growing up "into Him in all things" (Eph 4:15), and no longer living but "Christ living in me" (Gal 2:20). Frost writes,

"The factual nature of the Christian life as defined and described in the New Testament has been so forgotten, being overlaid by the modern conception of its being the sum of our activities aided by grace operating on us from without, in something of the way that steam-power acts upon the pistons of an engine, or the influence of a teacher acts upon a pupil, that we have come to regard such words as either rhetorical exaggerations or as expressing some 'experience' known only to the Saints" (p. 58-59).

This is a lon…

What is primary -- work or love

As I reflect on Mother Teresa, it occurs to me that among Christian leaders, there is a big difference between a worker who loves and a lover who works. We are all called to both -- loving God (cf. the Shema) and working in his kingdom. The question is what defines us -- our role as kingdom activists or our love relationship with God.

There are a great many Christian leaders who are primarily workers. They love God, but their love for him is carried by their role as leader. Their leadership role reaches deeper places within them than does their love relationship with God.

Although Mother Teresa was famous for working very, very hard, her writings reveal someone who is not primarily a worker. That is one of the main reasons why she was canonized as a saint, and she is someone worth rediscovering.

Rediscovering Mother Teresa

Most of us know Mother Teresa as a servant of mercy among "the poorest of the poor" in Calcutta. She has inspired countless people around the world with her ministry of compassion.

Now I am discovering Mother Teresa as an example of spiritual devotion to Christ. I am reading the book Mother Teresa -- Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the "Saint of Calcutta", edited, compiled, and with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk, who knew Mother Teresa for 20 years. Through Kolodiejchuk's commentary and Mother Teresa's own words, we gain a window into her prayer life and her relationship with God. We find out what made her tick. The result is that Mother Teresa becomes much more than just a doer of good deeds in the slums of India.

And what is it that made her tick? Very simply, she was "very, very much in love with Almighty God" (p. 26). She did not serve the poor because she thought it was a worthy social cause. She did it because she experienced a pe…

It's Wednesday, and we are still the church

Well, it's Wednesday, and we are still the church. The next president of the U.S. will be Barak Obama, and that upsets many conservative Christians. But as I told my kids this morning, it's possible that Obama could turn out to be a very good president. We'll have to see. Sometimes when he talks, he makes a lot of sense. Other times he sounds like a radical who may push agendas that are not good for the country.

After listening to McCain's concession speach last night, I was once again struck by the class of that man. For that reason alone I wish he was our president. He is someone we can all learn from.

All that said, the church is still the church. Our calling has not changed. We are to be the light of the world, allowing God's own goodness to shine through us. This means that no president, no proposition, or no law could possibly be the answer. "Some trust in chariots, some trust in horses..." -- and some trust in candidates, and some trust in propositio…

Who's afraid of election day?

I have been a bit saddened by the amount and degree of angst shown by Christians over the election this year. (And it seems like there is a similar amount of Chicken Little-ing every election cycle.) I think many Christians may be burdening themselves with an unreasonable set of expectations. If we think America is going to be the embodiment of the kingdom of God, I have to ask where we got that idea. I don't see it written in Scripture that any human society, other than ancient Israel perhaps, is expected to embody the kingdom of God. Jesus seemed to view human governments from a fairly neutral standpoint. "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's..." It's okay if there is a Caesar, and it even seems to be okay if Caesar doesn't give a rip about the God of Israel. The bottom line is that we have to trust that no matter what things look like, God has not removed his providential hand from the tiller. He continues to steer a course as he sees fit.

Yesterday I had lunc…

Praying for our culture

I have had scant energy or time lately to post to the blog. Other assignments have exhausted my expressive energy. One assignment into which I have poured a lot of energy is a prayer guide King's Harbor Church is using to lead people into prayer for our culture. Since the church is focusing on "cultural transformation," we have called it a Cultural Transformation Prayer Guide. It's a clever title, I know. :-)

The Prayer Guide brings up an interesting question. To what extent can we expect God to transform our culture? Doesn't the New Testament teach that cultures are beyond hope? I specify the NT, because the OT carries with it the clear hope that Israel will be the one human culture that displays the character of God.

But what about the NT? Let me throw out one side of the story -- a fairly pessimistic outlook that has been shared by many conservative Christians in America over the last 150 years or so.

Jesus makes no attempt to change Jewish culture, let alone t…

Having a plan to grow deep disciples

In the Great Commission, Jesus commands his disciples to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded" (Mt 28:16). Included in the "everything" must be the Great Commission itself. However, I wonder how well our churches do at fulfilling the whole Great Commission.

Many churches find themselves being good at one part or another of the Great Commission. They become specialists at evangelism ("make disciples") but cannot grow people deep in the faith. Or they become sacramental ("baptizing them") but not so good at bringing in new disciples. Or they specialize in equipping or discipling people ("teach them to obey"), but they drop the sacraments or have a hard time focusing on non-Christians.

How difficult is it to obey the whole Great Commission? If you ask Dallas Willard, it must be mighty difficult. In 1988 he lamented that a…

The beautiful side of grief

I just returned from spending a couple of days with relatives as we mourned the passing of my aunt. It occurred to me while I was there that I had not gone there just to mourn. I had also gone there to be with my relatives who were mourning. Those closest to my aunt were grieving in a much deeper way than I was. Although I grieved, I was reminded that one of the reasons I was there was not for my own grieving but so that I could be there beside others. Grief is a communal affair. Or at least it should be. We lend strength to each other. We also jointly participate in the proper honoring of a loved one. And we share in one another's healing. There is a certain beauty to grief when it is done communally and with mutual support. When personal loss is felt most acutely, personal care stands out the brightest.

Humility as mission

Humility is at the heart of our missional connection with people in our culture. If there is one thing the world wants to see, it is Christians being humble. We are supposed to be humble, but instead we have a reputation for being arrogant and condescending. Therefore, people are impressed when they interact with a Christian who is humble. And remember we are defining humility in terms of truth and receptivity. That is, a humble Christian doesn't think too highly of himself/herself, and he/she is open to God's influence and activity.

If the world is hungry for humility, and if humility is fairly rare, then genuine humility can be like a magnet drawing non-Christians into the faith. Humility can become mission.

Humility as openness and receptivity

In addition to being truth -- that is, an honest assessment of who we are -- humility is openness and receptivity to God. Casey helped me to see this.

Openness/receptivity is an important aspect to humility, because it is relational. To be honest about who we are, especially who we are in relation to God, is good and right. However, one can realize one's own weakness and shortcomings, and still remain closed off to God and others. Biblical humility is self-awareness of sin and need, turned toward God.

Luke relates Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18). The tax collector cries, "Have mercy on me, a sinner." It is important to see that the tax collector was in the temple and not standing outside the door. If he realized his own sinfulness and need but did not open himself to God, then he would have gone home rather than staying in the temple. And he would not have gone home justified.

Ideally our openness and receptivity to God should permeate every…

Humility as truth, post 2

"Pride is more than hauteur; it is radical falsehood." -- Michael Casey

Humility as truth

I have long thought of humility as truth in this way. Humility is an honest assessment of who we are. On one hand, this means acknowledging that we are not God -- a realization that does not come as easily as it might seem. It also means acknowledging that although we are prized creatures of God, we have fallen into sin and are not worthy of his favor. In these ways, the humble stance is on one's knees before God.

On the other hand, humility is not making less of ourselves than we ought. By grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are partakers of God's very nature and co-laborers with him. This is heady stuff! But because our exalted status only comes by first abasing ourselves before God, we cannot become arrogant that he wishes to exalt us. "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."

For help with humility, we can look at Jesus. On one hand, he only did what he saw the Father doing. On the other hand, he did not reject Thomas' worship or Peter's…

Why comfort and humility do not mix

I ran across some wonderful material today in Michael Casey's Living in the Truth: Saint Benedict's Teaching on Humility. Well, it's wonderfully true, but it's not wonderfully enjoyable. The point Casey makes in chapter four is that Benedict's doctrine of humility places our comfort and prosperity at odds with our humility. Here is how it works.

Humility is in large part a dependent openness toward God. That is, we see God as the answer to our needs, and we are receptive to any and all of his grace.

The problem is that when times are good, we drift off into a God-forgetting slumber. This is the gist of Moses' message in the book of Deuteronomy. He teaches something to the effect of: "When times are good, you will forget God. And then he will discipline you, and when times are tough again, you will remember him."

To put things another way, when times are good, we become prideful (we forget our need for God). It is often only hard times that can restore us…

Some thoughts on Christian love

It is our nature to define love in terms of behaviors. “Jesus left us with one command: to love one another. What must we do in order to fulfill this command?” That is our question. But it is a question doomed to frustration.

In her book on the monastic fathers and mothers, To Pray & to Love, Roberta Bondi points out that in the deserts, people commonly came to the Abbas and Ammas, asking for a code of conduct to follow or some ascetic disciplines to practice. But the Christian virtues, love included, are not a matter of rules or spiritual disciplines. They cannot be externalized like this. Rather… “The virtues are Christian patterns of seeing, feeling, and understanding, as well as acting that affect everything we do and everything we are. They are the internal laws that make us who we are, as Christians, but also as human beings” (39).

“Patterns”… “internal laws”… Bondi is trying to describe something internal and intangible, but nevertheless easily recognizable. We cannot manufac…

Backpacking at the Dinkey Lakes

I just returned from a backpacking trip in the high Sierras with my dad and oldest son. We packed in an area near Fresno called the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness. Yes, the lakes were dinky, as in small. Most natural alpine lakes are. But the place is really named for a small dog named Dinkey who protected his master by attacking a charging grizzly bear, giving the man time enough to grap a rifle and kill the bear. Dinkey lost his life for his act of heroism, but he was such an inspiration that an entire Sierra wilderness was named after him.

Anyway, we visited eight lakes, each of them stunningly beautiful in its own right. The visit was everything we could have hoped. We shared adventure, exploring places we had never been. We fished -- successfully. We swam and goofed off. We enjoyed each other's company. There is nothing like three generations of a family getting large chunks of uninterrupted time together. The bonds between all three of us were strengthened, and for that we are deepl…

From my prayer retreat at the monastery, post 5

July 16: Observations of Benedictine Life

After being here for a couple of days, here are my observations of life in a Benedictine monastery. These are aspects of monastic life that I would like to work into my non-monastic context.

· Balance of prayer and work. Benedict talked about a balance of ora et labora, or prayer and work. Benedictine monks spend somewhere around seven hours a day working and, depending on the monastery, about seven hours a day praying, most of it corporate and some of it private. You and I probably don’t have that much time to spend praying, but how can we work toward a better balance between prayer and work?

· Vigilance through praying the hours. There are set prayer times throughout each day, so the day takes on a familiar rhythm. This is how Benedictines maintain an ongoing vigil. It is by constant reminder, through participating in set times of prayer together. It is more difficult to forget God when you are coming before him seven or eight t…

From my prayer retreat at the monastery, post 4

July 15: Vigilance and Vigil

Vigilance is related to another key word, vigil. A prayer vigil is a period of watching and waiting on God. If we want to remain vigilant in devotion to God so we are not continually turning to the world and turning back to God in repentance, we must maintain an ongoing prayer vigil in our lives. Again I think of the ancient Benedictine pattern of observing prayer as many as seven times during the day and once in the middle of the night. Benedictines have historically prayed the entire Psalter in a week’s time. Their tradition is one of ongoing vigil. Benedict rightly teaches that the one who wants to become intimate with God must keep his eyes fixed on Christ, finding and communing with God in each and every moment. I don’t know what there is to learn and master that is more important than this.

As we progress in our relationship with God, we find that our sensitivity to turning away from God grows acute. We repent for sins we wouldn’t even have noticed in …

From my prayer retreat at the monastery, post 3

July 15: Vigilance

Today at the monastery we are celebrating the feast of St. Bonaventure, a medieval theologian and monastic. Bonaventure talked about turning our affections only toward God. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the inclination to turn toward the Triune God. Therefore, our seeking after God is a response not an initiative.

As I noted in the previous post, our response to God begins with “Here I am.” Over the years, our response includes many instances of replying to him, “Here I am.” This reply represents repentance whenever we are turning once again away from distractions and toward the Father. We have a tendency to drift, to turn away to the things of this world. Many of those things are good, but we can become too attached to them and too concerned with them. When that happens, the Holy Spirit whispers our name, and we have the opportunity once again to whisper back, “Here I am.”

Bonaventure teaches that the Spirit lights a flame of desire for God within us, and we are …

From my prayer retreat at the monastery, post 2

July 14: “Here I am”

If you have been called by God, your answer begins with, “Here I am.” The Scriptures record the calling of Samuel and Isaiah, and both times the response to God begins with, “Here I am.” For Samuel, it is an answer to the voice that speaks to him in the night. For Isaiah, it is a willingness to be the one sent by God to proclaim his message.

I came to the monastery with a sense that God was calling me to come away with him. Upon arriving here, my response has begun with, “Here I am.” This is my simple posture before him. There is no need for a flowery speech expressing my devotion to him. At this point, there is only the presentation of myself before him. (Incidentally, this kind of posture before God, punctuated by brief but heartfelt prayers, is very much in keeping with Benedict’s teachings. He favored brief prayers from the heart over long-winded rhetorical masterpieces.)

To say “Here I am” is to say something personal. It is a statement of presence-in-relationsh…

From my prayer retreat at the monastery, post 1

July 14: "Simple"

I am writing from room 9 of St. Andrews Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the edge of the Mojave desert near Palmdale, CA. I have come here for a prayer retreat, lasting from Monday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon. I have been under a lot of mental and spiritual fatigue lately, and I felt I needed to get away. I think God is also stirring in my heart, so I am here in response to the calling of the Spirit to come away with him…

I am very happy with the accommodations. The room is Spartan but clean. The walls are cinder block, and the floors are ceramic tile. There are two twin beds, dressed with simple blue spreads. The room is comfortable but modest. It is air conditioned, but that too is modest. I doubt the temperature in here will dip below 80 in the afternoons.

I specifically rejected the idea of taking a prayer retreat at a posh hotel somewhere. I do not want to be pampered. I do not want to be courted by advertisers. I want a place of repentance, a cocoo…

Prayer as problem solving v. prayer as love

In a recent post, I contrasted two visions of the church: Center for Problem-Solving or Community for God-Following. I want to make a similar contrast with regard to prayer.

In his book Prayer Primer, Catholic writer Thomas Dubay observes, "... a large majority [of typical churchgoers] would describe prayer in terms of seeking divine help in solving problems of one kind or another: illness, employment, fear, guilt feelings, interpersonal conflicts. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. This reason for praying is valid, but by itself it is notably incomplete" (p. 23).

I think Dubay is right on all counts. I agree that this is the way the typical churchgoer views prayer. It is not simply because churchgoers are clueless. Now it must be admitted that many churchgoers do not really want a deeper relationship with God. They just want to have important problems solved. They are in it to get something they value. However, I think this self-centered approach is exacer…

How pastors are made... according to a six-year-old

Tonight at the dinner table my wife and I witnessed a very telling dramatization of one of life's great mysteries: how pastors are made. Our six-year-old son plucked off his plate one tater tot in each hand and began to narrate. Raising one tot, he says, "This is Jesus." Raising the other, he adds, "And this is a bad guy."

He rams the Jesus tot against the bad guy tot. "Jesus beats up the bad guy."

Pieces begin falling off the wounded tot, but the Jesus tot pushes them back into place. "Jesus heals him."

The Jesus tot begins bobbing up and down toward the suddenly healed, bad guy tot. "And then Jesus tells him about himself."

The bad guy tot is held triumphantly. "And then he makes him become a pastor."

Chomp! "And then I ate him!" Thus ends the tale of the bad-guy-beaten-up-by-Jesus-but-then-healed-and-turned-into-a-pastor-and-suddenly-eaten-alive.

Disclaimer: While the account of the tot dramatization is factual, th…

A prayer for writers, teachers, and preachers

This is a simple meditation on Scripture. In Ps 137, the writer begins by mourning how after carting the Israelites off to their land, the Babylonians taunted them by demanding that they sing cheerful songs of Zion. The Psalm then contains these verses (vv. 5-6):

"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy."

The psalmist wants his singing to retain its authenticity and rootedness. He does not want to sing with falsehood in his heart. If he begins to sing the songs with an empty desire merely to entertain or please his captors, may God take away his ability to play the lyre or give voice to a tune. Therefore, he would not sing for the Babylonians like a paid performer.

For anyone who communicates ideas about God, whether it be in writing or speaking, whether in a large audience or small, there is a Babylonian taunt that whispers insidiously to…

Center for Problem-Solving v. Community for God-Following, cont.

Last post I commented on the difference between church as a Center for Problem-Solving and church as a Community for God-Following. One aspect of this I didn't discuss was the difference between a Center and a Community. When problem-solving is the point, a true community is not required. Relationships can stay on a fairly shallow level. Even when we open up to each other in order to solve personal problems, such as problems in one's marriage, we need not enter into deep relationship with each other. One can take the risk of transparency while still remaining emotional invulnerable. The way to do it is to treat the relationship like therapy. We let others know us in order to do something -- namely, solve a problem. But therapists are paid helpers; there is no relationship of mutual self-giving in therapy. That is why a patient can leave a therapist and not suffer a great deal of emotional loss.

In contrast, a community is made not of professional-and-client, but of friends. Rel…

The church: Center for Problem-Solving or Community for God-Following?

Continuing our thoughts about what it means to be involved in a community of faith (i.e., a church)...

There is a fundamental choice to make about how people in a church will relate to each other. What is the pastor's role, and how will parishioners interact with the pastor? In today's world of consumerism and pragmatism, there is a strong temptation to mold the church into a Center for Problem Solving. People come to the church wanting answers to important questions in life. "What job should I take?" "Can I get my spouse to stop opposing me at home?" "How can I balance career and relationships?" "How can I have a satisfying relationship with God?" The demand from the congregation is that the pastor be a dispenser of good advice. And the pastor reciprocates by constructing a business-like organization that operates by overlapping strategies to solve the common problems of life. Thus are born a myriad of ministry departments with highly sp…

Jesus is our example of ongoing self-emptying

Today I can appreciate in a new light how Jesus was our example of making an ongoing decision to empty himself. He did it, and he calls us to do it.

Here's how these ideas have woven together for me. A couple of weeks ago I preached a sermon in which I highlighted that Jesus called people to make a decision about him. He provoked a response, and he based his hearers' status with the Father on how they responded to the Son. I talked further about how for us this is an ongoing decision. It is not settled in a one-time "sinner's prayer." Rather, we must "take up our crosses" every day and follow him.

I have also been engaged in an unrelated study about the incarnation of Christ. Specifically I have been thinking about the self-emptying of the Word to become human. Phil 2:7 says that Christ Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness..." The theological term for this self-emptying is kenosis, taken after the Gree…

Desperate Pastors

Desperate pastors... the world is full of them.

How do you recognize them? One mark of the desperate pastor is that he (or she) chases people in order to "pastor" them. If you are waivering in your commitment to Christ, this pastor will call you repeatedly until you either return to the fold or politely -- or not so politely sometimes -- tell him to leave you alone. The desperate pastor gets jittery if he is not personally there to care for someone.

A second mark is that he will prop up ministries he thinks you will be interested in. He is like a private chef and a waiter, rolled into one. He will cook up anything you want and bring it to you on a gleaming platter. The desperate pastor leads by sticking his wet finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. If he thinks the flock wants it, he will provide it.

A third mark of the desperate pastor is that he will be seen everywhere the church meets. He is in every meeting, leading from the front, grabbing every bit of sp…

Eugene Peterson's pastoral wisdom

In my opinion, in all the shelves and shelves of books written about the vocation of pastoring, there is nothing rivaling the work of Eugene Peterson. He is transparent, taking us through his own struggles to unearth the essence of the pastoral vocation. Our world incessantly works to reduce pastors to purveyers of religious commodities and Christians to bargain-seeking consumers of self-fulfillment. Our Christian culture too often abides by a similar arrangement that pastors and churchgoers should live in a sort of pact -- the pastor delivers the desired goods and in return, the churchgoers affirm the pastor, even occasionally exalting the pastor to star status. Keep the pact, and there will be peace (of a sort). Upset this equilibrium, and who knows what will break loose.

Peterson is not the only Christian leader to recognize and cry out against the pressure to live under the smothering blanket of this unholy and unspoken agreement. But he speaks with a rare combination of transparen…

What the elementary school musical taught me about leadership

This morning I had the privilege of attending the Alta Vista Elementary “Spring Sing,” which was a musical performance put on by the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades for us parents. Little did I know it would turn into a lesson in leadership.

Our music teacher came on staff only recently, and in a short period of time, she put together the best elementary musical I have ever seen. The 3rd-graders opened with “Feelin’ Groovy” – which sets just the right atmosphere because it is, well, groovy. :-) But the thing is that in “Feelin’ Groovy,” Beach Boys songs, and others, ordinary school were performing complex vocal elements. They were singing parts, and the parts were overlaid with other parts. I even heard some harmonies in there! I found myself being emotionally moved. I felt like a sentimental dork, until another dad said something afterward about getting misty-eyed. And he's a pretty tough guy, so I felt better about myself. But back to the point -- this other dad and I ware moved by the…

Homosexuality and the church -- post 4

More dialogue with Dan Kimball's book, They Like Jesus but Not the Church...

Point #4 -- Supporting people in the church.

-- From Kimball: One of Kimball's interviewees, Chad, states well on p. 157 that gays sacrifice a great deal to give up not only a sexual attraction but an entire support system as well. Most of the church does not understand the relational toll involved in transitioning out of a homosexual lifestyle. The most critical missing piece in the church's ministry to homosexuals is providing close relational support, especially from heterosexuals who can come alongside. Chad says, "The church does not know how desperately [homosexuals in the church] need emotional support. I know plenty of examples of gays who were trying to change and joined a church but could not find the support they needed."

-- My comment: It would be heartbreaking to have someone leave the church because he/she was unable to find relational support to follow through on a life-decis…

Homosexuality and the church -- post 3

More dialogue with Dan Kimball's book, They Like Jesus but Not the Church...

Point #3 -- Practice and Orientation.

-- From Kimball: Kimball differentiates between sexual practice and sexual orientation. The Scriptures condemn engaging in homosexual practice. However, a Christian can have a homosexual orientation (i.e., same-sex attraction). For the Christian with a homosexual orientation, it takes great sacrifice and commitment not to act upon one's attractions. For this person who has a homosexual orientation but does not act upon it for the sake of Christ, Kimball does not object to using the term "homosexual Christian."

-- My comment: I agree with Kimball's argument. However, I would not use the term "homosexual Christian" unless I was in a setting where I could carefully and clearly unpack what I mean -- and even then I might not go so far as to use the term, because it would lend itself to much confusion. Given the overwhelming desire in today's w…

Homosexuality and the church -- post 2

More dialogue with Dan Kimball's book, They Like Jesus but Not the Church...

Point #2 -- Stigmatizing homosexuality.

-- From Kimball: One of the most harmful ways the way the church has dealt with homosexuality has been to stigmatize it, casting gays as sexual deviates with an insidious political agenda. It would be much more helpful if the church would treat homosexuality as one sin alongside many others -- no worse and no better. (This is best stated on p. 142 by Karen, a Christian who has struggled with same-sex attraction.)

-- My comment: I completely agree! We all have compulsions to stray from God's will in one way or another. I don't see homosexual practice as being qualitatively any better or worse than human ambition, overeating, gossiping, coveting, etc. However, these sins are repeated in the church so regularly that they are practically part of accepted Christian culture. When someone exercises human ambition in the church, he is usually promoted to greater respon…

Homosexuality and the church -- post 1

Dan Kimball includes a thought-provoking chapter on the church and homosexuality in his book, They Like Jesus but Not the Church. He correctly underscores the importance of dealing with this issue openly by observing that "homosexuality is increasingly becoming a normal part of our emerging culture" (136). Whereas Kimball has settled on the position that homosexual practice is a sin, he challenges the church to a much more open and respectful dialogue about the issue.

In the next four posts, I will mention some points from Kimball's chapter that caught my eye and add some brief comments.

Point #1 -- What Scripture really teaches.

-- From Kimball: There are fairly sophisticated arguments that Scripture only condemns homosexual promiscuity, not homosexual practice in general. These arguments are increasingly well known and used by Christians of the emerging culture, regardless of sexual orientation. Church leaders who want to promote an open and respectful dialogue must deal …

The Great Commission

I have re-read the Great Commission in Matt 28 recently, and I have some observations about (a) the commission, (b) what we in the church have called "discipleship", and (c) how we often reduce the Commission to less than its full self.

First, the Great Commission is as near a complete definition of what it means to be church that you will ever find. "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded." The Commission has three main parts: making disciples, baptizing disciples, and forming disciples. In other words, evangelism, sacrament, and formation. Doesn't this sum up a lot of what the church is about?

Second, the Great Commission uses the idea of disciple-making in a different way than most evangelicals do. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus charges his followers to make disciples... of whom? People from "all nations." Those would be the…

The dual calling of a disciple of Jesus

Mark 3:13-14 effectively captures the dual life of a disciple of Jesus. In fact, this may be the most compact but elusive description of the Christian life ever recorded. It is so compact that it is easily overlooked. It is elusive because most English translations miss the meaning inherent in its sentence structure.

In the NRSV, the passage reads like this:

13He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. 14And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, 15and to have authority to cast out demons.

In Greek, there are two hina (pronounced "heena") clauses here. Hina can roughly be translated as "so that." Therefore, when Jesus appointed his disciples, there were two "so thats." These two "so thats" sum up the entire Christian life. Ready?

Number one: so that they might be with him.
Number two: so that he might send them out.

To be with him... to be…

The demise of consumeristic churches

Lately, especially today, I have given significant thought to the way we Americans go about "doing church." (Maybe the use of those terms is offensive to some.) If there is one thing that is clear to me, it is that the days of the consumeristic, spectator-based, entertainment-rich, palace-dwelling megachurches are coming to an end. Many pastors will feel like they get a free pass when they hear the word "megachurch," because a megachurch is usually thought of as a 5-10,000+ person body. There are only a handful of churches like this in the country, so why worry about it, right?

I think we need to redefine megachurch a little. I was talking to someone a while back who referred to a 1500-person church in the LA area as a megachurch. I thought, "That's no megachurch. There are plenty of 1500-person churches out there. Can they all be megachurches?" I think they can be considered megachurches, because they act like megachurches in that they tend to rely on…

John Stott's The Living Church

I just finished reading John Stott's The Living Church. It is a very well balanced and solid treatment of what the church should be. And who would be surprised? Stott is in his 80s now, and he has been a theologian-churchman for decades. Stott's book is not trendy. It is not the dessert of ecclesiology books. However, it is the main course. Anyone who wants the meat and potatoes of what it means to be the church will benefit from this compact book.

What Billy Graham would have changed in his ministry

I have been reading through a compact book by John Stott, entitled The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (IVP, 2007). I have a lot of respect for the scholar-churchman, and Stott has filled that role admirably for decades. Consequently, I have been enjoying the wisdom of his years in the pastorate.

Stott, in turn, refers to the wisdom of Billy Graham. Stott writes, "Speaking in 1979 to about six hundred pastors in London, he said that if he had his ministry all over again, he would make two changes. The atmosphere was electric. What changes would he make? First, he continued, he would study three times as much as he had done. 'I've preached too much,' he said, 'and studied too little.' Second, he would pray more. In saying this, he must have had in mind the two apostolic priorities... 'we will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word'" (107).

The Kingdom of God is like the desert...

We just got back from two days in the desert outside Phoenix, AZ. The rules are different out there. The weather is extreme. The coyotes are close at hand, as are the rattlesnakes and many kinds of cactus. Danger is everywhere. The world feels just a little out of control. It's good to have it that way once in a while.

Now we are back in suburbia, and I have a question. What is the kingdom of God supposed to look like? I ask because I think we are a little kingdom-deficient in Western, suburban Christianity. For us, the kingdom tends to look like suburban life. It looks and smells nice, and it is able to be planned and budgeted. When I read the Bible, I think the kingdom is supposed to be a little more like the desert -- dangerous and uncontrollable. More thoughts on this in the coming days.

How being connected is linked to being rude

The tech companies in Silicon Valley have become fully aware that when people are too connected technologically, they tend to be disrespectul and even rude to each other. This article from the LA Times explains how more and more tech companies are banning laptops and other personal electronic devices (cell phones, etc.) from the meeting room. The reason is that when every participant in the meeting has a laptop or device in front of him/her and is connected to e-mail and the internet, they don't really interact with the other human beings in the room.

One person in the story complains that he would spend hours preparing a presentation, only to be virtually ignored when he presented it to the too-busy executives who were talking to everyone else electronically while they paid him only partial attention.

I'm no enemy of technology, but I know that we can only pay attention to so many sources of input at any one time. And when one of the sources of input is a human being sitting in…

Jesus' prayer life - liturgical or extemporaneous?

I have been arguing that based on historical research and biblical evidence, we can be sure that Jesus, his disciples, and his contemporaries prayed liturgically. The reason I have been arguing this point is that most low-church evangelicals (a) want to follow Scripture as the authoritative guide for matters of faith and worship, and (b) stamp out liturgical prayer because it smacks of (what they think of as) unbiblical, Catholic tradition. That is a self-contradictory position. What I am saying is that to be biblical is to be liturgical. If Jesus practiced liturgy, why wouldn't we?

I am making an argument based mostly on silence and circumstantial evidence. Jesus nowhere makes a point of teaching his followers to pray liturgically. On the contrary, he cautions them against praying with empty repitition. In other words, mean what you say.

However, he nowhere instructs his followers to stop saying the set prayers (like praying the Shema in the morning and evening). If it was accepted…

The Lord's Prayer as Liturgy

It has been observed by NT scholars that when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, they were asking Jesus for a prayer that expressed his "yoke." A rabbi's yoke was his religious worldview. It was his way of approaching life in the light of his understanding of God and his Law. We must also keep in mind that Judaism in Jesus' day was highly liturgical. Set prayers were commonly used. For instance, Jews regularly prayed the Psalms (as do we). Therefore, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, they were asking for a set prayer that had Jesus' unique stamp on it. They were essentially asking him to write his own psalm that they could pray.

They got what they asked for. The Lord's Prayer was most likely taught and practiced by Jesus on multiple occasions. Therefore, the disciples knew it before Jesus died. After he had died, risen, and ascended into heaven, his followers continued to recite the Lord's Prayer as the centerpiece of their dail…

Prayer in the earliest church

For most evangelicals, Acts 2:42 is the prototype that shapes how church ought to be done. "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." (NRSV)

Thus, the earliest church was a place of learning from Scripture, relating to one another, eating together and taking Communion together ("the breaking of bread" most likely refers to both eating common meals and celebrating the Eucharist), and praying. What kind of praying, though? Here is where many evangelicals selectively interpret Acts 2:42.

The NRSV translates the Greek taisproseuchais as "the prayers" -- i.e., prayers plural. This is a correct translation of the Greek. Without drawing unwarranted conclusions, it is true that the verse does not say "prayer" in the singular. It is "prayers" in the plural. "Prayers" as in liturgical prayers.

Was there liturgy involved in the early church? Yes! This verse does not conclus…

Impossible dreams

Last night in a prayer meeting I met with a challenging question. Are our dreams big enough and impossible enough that they can only be accomplished through prayer? How about dreams that are impossible enough that they can only be accomplished through radical dependence on god expressed through prayer and fasting? Is there anything we are hoping for that is that far outside the box?

As I wrestle with this question, I also want to remain attentive to another dynamic of having dreams for the future. If you are dreaming with God, you don't want to control the content of the dreams. You might not have ideas that are big enough. Someone once said, "Don't come up with the dreams; discover them."

So... what if we seek to have God open up our hearts to dream and receive dreams from him that can only be accomplished through prayer, or even prayer and fasting?

Easter sunrise service

This morning we had Easter sunrise service beside the Pacific Ocean. When we started the service at 6:00 AM, it was dark, and the full moon hung over the ocean. By 7:00, the sun had come up behind us, illuminating a clear blue sky. At one point I suddenly noticed it was daytime. We began the service in the night, and it ended in the day. It reminds me of an excerpt form Paul's letter to the Romans:

"Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." (Rom 13:11-14)

The passing night speaks not of the darkness but of the growing light. Just as the dawn cannot become darker again, neither can we allow ourselves t…

Fasting in the consumer economy, 2

Here is a brilliant quote from one of the people Baab interviewed as she prepared to write her book:

"Mark, a consultant in his sixties, reflects, 'What I've learned from fasting is that it is often difficult to know that for which we are hungry when we are satiated all the time. We actually need to experience physical hunger in order to trace what our real spiritual and emotional hunger is.'" (p. 47)

What do you think? Is he right?

Fasting in the consumer economy

I am reading a good book on fasting: Fasting by Lynne Baab (IVP, 2006). She has taken a little talked about part of the Christian life and given it a fine treatment, rich in stories and very much in dialogue with both Scripture and contemporary culture.

Here's one point she brings out about fasting in America today. It runs so strongly against the grain of our culture that most Christians don't practice it. Our culture is closely tied to our economy, and our economy runs on consumption. Advertising drives desire, and desire drives purchasing of goods and services. Purchasing of goods and services provides jobs. And the cycle continues.

The consumer economy works, and we are thankful for our jobs. However, in stirring up our desire for goods and services, our culture badgers us with an incessant stream of advertising that is designed to keep us wanting... coveting... overspending. On top of this, one of the mantras of the consumer culture is that any kind of deprivation should be…

Banging the drum

Another great aspect of yesterday's all-night prayer and worship vigil is that we engaged in participatory music. Usually at our church gatherings, there is a talented and trained worship band that leads us relatively untalented and untrained people in musical expressions of worship. Yesterday in the wee hours of the morning we all made music together. We had one guitarist and lead vocalist, our worship pastor, Loren Johnson. The rest of us formed a large percussion band. There were bongo drums and other percussion instruments set around the room for anyone to use. And use them we did!

I liked this experience for two main reasons. First, we all expressed ourselves to God musically, and we did it in community. We were together in that expression. There were no spectators, only participants.

For me, it was a wonderful sensation getting to play along with the "big boys." I sat next to two masterful percussionists, and I did my best to blend in with their lead as I experimente…

Heavenly moments

Last night I participated in an all-night prayer and worship service at our church. I got there at 11:00 and didn't leave until 4:00. And I could have stayed longer. There's something about being in an atmosphere of worship in the middle of the night that makes you lose track of time. You are removed from other places, and your appointment calendar is irrelevant (other than wondering whether you will be coherent for the things you need to do the next day). In a very real way, it felt heavenly. God was personally present, and we were caught up in enjoying him in community with each other. It reminded me of the heavenly city in Rev 21.

I am relishing the experience of last night (more properly, this morning). A very real sense of peace is lingering well into the day. Isn't that what we Christians call an "after glow"?

And yet I also have to look into the future. I am re-energized to create an atmosphere in my daily life that lends itself to heavenly moments happening…

Keeping truth on the table

You may already be aware of this, but there is a battle raging in the church over the concept of truth. Today we talked about it in a pastoral meeting. The grist we used was the opening part of John MacArthur's book, The Truth War. Although I cannot tolerate MacArthur's propensity to leap into frenzies of "bride-bashing" (criticizing other Christians with unfair tactics and damaging rhetoric), I will hand it to him that he is staking out a place in the debate.

I think the service he provides to the church during this season is that he is keeping the concept of truth on the table. These days a lot of postmodern evangelicals are skittish about using the word 'truth', because it tends to enter the room dragging behind it a motley assortment of modernist baggage. For instance, in an effort to build neatly arranged systems of theology, evangelicals have tended to treat the Bible like a repository of propositions (true-false statements). Indeed, the Bible is full of…

Being neither here nor there

Today I was sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for my son to have his arm x-rayed. (He broke it a couple of weeks ago jumping off of a swing.) We had been in our assigned room for what seemed like an eternity. Does time slow down when you are in a doctor’s treatment room or does it just seem like that? Fortunately we had both brought good books with us. It was strange sitting in a small room for an extended period of time – probably about 25 minutes – and not talking to each other. But we were both engrossed in what we were reading.

At one point, however, I stopped reading because I was distracted. There was a woman in one of the rooms nearby who boomed out her words like she was conversing with someone down the hall. She pulled my attention from my book like she was yanking a weed from her front yard. The trouble was that when I actually decided to listen to her, I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. I caught about every third word. “Sister… is raising… daughter… don’t te…

The peaceful church - more on 1 Thess 5

More on Paul's portrait of the church in 1 Thess 5. In vv. 12-13, Paul addresses the people who are under leadership (see my post on March 5). In v. 14, he shifts gears. At the National Pastors Convention during morning Bible study, Dr. Gordon Fee stated that in v. 14 Paul switches audiences and now issues instructions to leaders. Here is what he says to do:

"And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil." (vv. 14-22, NRSV)

Without getting into a drawn out exegesis of the passage, let's notice a couple of things. First, this is far fr…